Exercise is now known to also improve our mental wellbeing – yet more motivation for us to get moving.
Inside out and outside in
We all know the benefits of exercise for our physical health. Many of us work towards a goal, be it becoming fitter, leaner, stronger or more muscular.
Those are, unsurprisingly, common goals people aim for. However, exercise is now known to also improve our mental wellbeing – yet more motivation for us to get moving. There is an increasing amount of research that indicates a positive relationship between exercise and mental wellbeing.
In fact, we can even expand it to include most if not all physical activity. We use the term ‘physical activity’ here to mean actions that make us move around, generate force through our muscles and expend energy. We can briefly break these down into:
Daily Physical Activity– anything that ranges from house chores, occupational activities (i.e. work), grocery shopping or climbing the stairs can be placed under this category.
Play – Defined as unstructured activity that is done for pure fun and enjoyment. These can range from a session on your Wii to hardcore pillow fights with your friends.
Sports – Structured activities that can be competitive in nature. Think football, badminton or golf (yes, golf). It can be team or individual-oriented.
Exercise – purposeful activity that mainly aimed at improving our health. This can range from steady-statecardio (jogging, swimming), flexibility training (yoga), endurance training (HIIT),to strength training (lifting weights).
In an ideal world, we do all these to get fitter and healthier. From a physical standpoint, the benefits of doing these are very comprehensive and have been talked about for years. However, how much does it impact our psychological and mental wellbeing?
As it turns out. a whole l ot…
Thus far, we know that physical activities benefit us in:
- Improvement of sleep quantity and quality
- Managing stress
- Enhancing mood
- Energising and reducing tiredness
- Increasing mental alertness, focus and concentration
So why does physical activity help our psychological and mental wellbeing? Here we look at several hypotheses that shed some light on the matter:
1. The Catecholamine Hypothesis Catecholamine are transmitters in the central nervous system that are involved in mood and emotion regulation. The complexity of how it helps is beyond this article, but the short story is that exercise and physical activities enhance the release of these Cathecholamine transmitters which leads to inhibition of stressful stimuli, leading to a positive state of mind.
2. The Endorphin Hypothesis Endorphins are hormones that reduce or inhibit pain, as well as produce euphoric states such as the runner’s high and orgasms (get your mind out of the gutter folks, it’s science). Exercise leads to increased levels of endorphins and in turn, helps you go into a state of flow and relaxed mind.
3. The Thermogenic Hypothesis Exercise increases our body temperature, and this in turn establishes a relaxed state and reduces somatic anxiety. The mechanism explains why people go for sun-tanning and sauna sessions. Basically, a relaxed body relaxes the mind.
4. The Time-Out Hypothesis People can treat exercise as a form of psychological release from negative emotions like anger, anxiety and disappointment through a process we call catharsis. Exercise and physical activities also serve as distractions to negative situations.
5. The Mastery Hypothesis Often, when we engage in sports or exercise, we are also trying to improve our self-efficacy and self-esteem. It could mean trying to reach a certain mile on your evening run or improving your passing skills in futsal. In other words, we are trying to master a skill. This can be a form of ‘achievement unlocking’ and it gives us a sense of accomplishment and positive emotion.
How much exercise do we need?
What are the exercises that are recommended? In short, whatever makes you feel good.
So, how much physical activity do you really need to do to obtain psychological benefits? Most people will tell you ‘more is better’, but this is not the case. In other words, you don’t have to exhaust yourself in a marathon to feel sufficient and happy.
The minimum recommendation is at least 30 minutes, 5 times a week, which adds up to 150 minutes in a week to see the effects. A 45-minute session appears to be the most effective. However, this also depends on other factors like intensity and frequency.
Higher intensity exercises are known to provide greater benefits. This is why we are seeing the rise of High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) popularity in recent years. What are the exercises that are recommended?In short, whatever makes you feel good.
Some people find joy in cardiovascular exercises such as swimming and cycling. Others love weight lifting. Some people love to do outdoor activities, while their friends might be more into indoor sports. Personally, I like futsal and badminton. Unsurprisingly, I dislike running on a treadmill. I like to mix up my physical activities, ranging from weight training to HIIT to sports. For me personally, it is the variety that makes these physical activities fun, which brings us to the next part.
How do I make physical activity enjoyable?
It is already hard enough to motivate ourselves to exercise. The thought of feeling the strain, exhaustion and difficulty breathing is off-putting for many. This is even truer of people who are experiencing mental or emotional problems such as depression and anxiety. Taking these into consideration, how can we find that joy?
Start small. Start smart.
It is common to see a person, especially those who are psyched up (I want to lose weight now!) to go full-on hardcore mode. After the first huff and puff, the strain, pain and loss of breath come. 3 months later and they’ve quit – it’s just not a sustainable way of doing things. So set achievable goals and start small. Consider a brisk walk instead of a high-intensity sprint. Build up from there gradually. Find a trainer to help you plan out your routine and use a natural pre workout if needed to get an extra boost.
Take up a physical activity that you enjoy
It doesn’t have to be HIIT to get started with (in fact, this is not recommended for beginners). Take up something relaxing. A frisbee passing in the park with your kid or your dog can be pretty enjoyable. Try out different activities. Maybe you find running long-distance taxing, so perhaps try a dance class like Zumba. Experiment!
Some people enjoy a morning routine, still others prefer an evening stroll to wind down. Whatever the time of day, plan your exercise. Schedule it into small blocks. For example, in strength training, it is categorised in sets and repetitions (and rest in between) so not only does it help to optimise your energy, it also makes it seem like less effort is needed. If it tricks your brain into exercising, then why not?
After a job well done, reward yourself. A good massage session or a tasty treat can be something you look forward to after a workout. Setup an appropriate reward, so that you don’t over-reward yourself.
Make it a social activity
This works extremely well for me and many others. It is well-researched that having at least one activity partner contributes to better adherence to a routine. It helps you stick to your fitness goals, sort of like a pick-me-up. The companionship that comes with it also helps negate the negative emotions that you experience.
And who says workout buddies can only be other people?
Physical and mental wellbeing cannot be separated
With so many benefits that come with exercise (or even just moving more), it is quite baffling that we do not engage in exercise more. Personally, I find it helps me get that sense of achievement, feeling good as well as acquiring the energy I need. In fact, exercising has been extensively researched as a successful method of intervention for mental wellbeing. So far, it has shown significant results in tackling depression, anxiety and even schizophrenia.
No, I’m not saying you’re schizophrenic, but even the best of us suffer from anxiety from time to time. So, even if you feel you don’t need to exercise to lose weight, consider this to obtain a healthier mind and improve mental wellbeing!